It’s been 10 years since the city took possession of the Conimicut Shoals Lighthouse in a no-cash transfer from the General Services Administration. Since then, the city has done nothing with the lighthouse. And given the action of the City Council earlier this month, nothing is likely to happen soon.
Lack of action could jeopardize city ownership of the lighthouse under the terms of the agreement with the General Services Administration, although that’s not going to happen right away, according to National Park Service spokesperson Bonnie Halda.
“The [lighthouse] is in generally good condition, therefore this additional delay does not jeopardize the city's ownership. The city has been submitting their annual compliance reports to our office and they are in compliance with the terms of the transfer,” she said in response to an email inquiry
Further delays in use of the lighthouse didn’t appear to be a consideration when the council recently shot down the administration’s proposal to lease the lighthouse at a dollar year. In exchange, New England Lighthouse Tourism and Restoration Company would have restored and renovated the light. The lighthouse would have been rented as a bed and breakfast as well as made accessible to the public.
But Mayor Scott Avedisian’s plan rankled some council members who felt he had taken the initiative without their consent.
At the May 12 council meeting, Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said that according to his recollection, it was Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon who had the foresight to suggest the city get the lighthouse when the opportunity became available. He said it appears from the process of the proposed lease “as if you [Solomon] didn’t exist.”
Avedisian named Solomon to head the Conimicut Lighthouse Foundation soon after the lighthouse was acquired. If the foundation has met at all, it has not been for years. It has not offered a plan for the lighthouse.
Also, soon after, the mayor connected with Nick Kerstad of New England Lighthouse, owner of the Borden Flats Lighthouse in Fall River. Kerstad, who rents the Fall River location as a bread and breakfast, is interested in the Conimicut Lighthouse. Avedisian arranged for Kerstad to tour it last fall. Solomon was invited to join him, but he had a conflict and couldn’t make it.
Following the visit, the city planning department further researched Kerstad’s work at the Borden Flats Lighthouse and worked out the lease agreement that would have allowed him to do virtually the same thing with Conimicut. The big difference is that the city would continue to own the lighthouse and it would be accessible to the public.
After the mayor announced the agreement at a press conference on April 9, Solomon said it was the first he had heard of it and reserved comment until he had a chance to review the proposed lease. At the May 12 council meeting, Solomon downplayed his role in acquiring the lighthouse for the city.
“This is not Scott Avedisian’s lighthouse, this is not Joe Solomon’s lighthouse. This is the people of Warwick’s lighthouse,” he said.
He questioned whether the administration’s lease was the best deal, recommending that the city issue a request for proposals, or RFP. He also said he wants to see the planning department apply for grants to renovate the light.
“There are a lot of potential uses here,” he said.
That could be the case if the city still owns the lighthouse and it’s still usable. Asked last week if he remains interested in the lighthouse, Kerstad said, “I’m all on board, it would be nice to get some work done.” He said there are “some cracks” in the caisson of the lighthouse – erected in 1883 – that if not sealed could result in further deterioration of the structure. Because the lighthouse is exposed to the salt water and extreme weather conditions, he said, it could deteriorate quickly, rendering it unsafe. He said that is what has happened with the Hog Island Lighthouse not far from the Mt. Hope Bridge. Conditions are so bad there that the Coast Guard, which maintains the light and foghorn, is only checking on the equipment annually, he said.
Conimicut is in better shape, although if regular maintenance isn’t performed, “it probably only has 20 years left before it falls over in a nor’easter,” he said.
Of more immediate concern is the requirement that the city take action within 10 years of acquiring the lighthouse.
“It’s a risk that they’re [GSA] going to take it back,” he said. Kerstad, who has a passion for lighthouses and views them as early beacons of economic development that now offer an opportunity for tourism development, knows of several that have been reclaimed by the government.
Solomon took offense to Kerstad’s suggestion the city could lose the lighthouse.
“I don’t think Nick is accurate with that,” he said. Solomon labeled Kerstad’s comments a “threat that if we don’t go with him, it doesn’t go at all.”
“Nick should pick up the phone and call the person responsible for getting the lighthouse from the GSA, and that’s me,” said Solomon.
“It may not be the process Nick likes, and unfortunately it is not the process the mayor used. I like to reach out to other entities. I did not toss Nick out and I hope he remains interested,” said Solomon.
Solomon said he hopes the city will issue a request for proposals for the lighthouse early this summer and that the council would review submissions soon thereafter. He also expects the Conimicut Lighthouse Foundation to play a role in the preservation and future use of the structure.
Halda said that the National Parks Service informed the city last month that the proposal to lease the lighthouse is a change in the city’s original application and must be described in an amendment to the application. Halda said the amendment would need to be submitted to the NPS for review and approval.
“We also stated that we continue to be concerned about the deferred maintenance of the light, and we encouraged the city to expand their search for other sources of funding,” she said.